Sometimes I feel stupid for griping about the plethora of microbudgeted shot-on-video movies I watch as part of 365 Days; it's like bitching about getting a headache while scarfing down ice cream--what else did you expect? Not that I have a problem with the form per se, it's just that 99.99999% of them display as much creativity and skill as a crayon-scribbled portrait hanging on a refrigerator door. That's why I enjoyed Justin Wingenfeld's 2007 release SKIN CRAWL, a movie that may be flawed, but at least keeps its zombies in front of the camera.
A 17th-century prologue sets the stage as a trio of witches (led by the always-awesome Debbie Rochon) places a curse when they're brutalized by the local menfolk, a surprisingly solid beginning with great sepia-tinted photography and competent performances marred only by cheesy digital trickery and a none-too-convincing rape scene. (It just occurred to me that I frequently use "competent" as a somewhat backhanded compliment, but after sitting through such turdburgers as ZOMBIE CAMPOUT and ZOMBIES GONE WILD, the fact that an actor can deliver dialogue without giving me the giggles is high praise indeed.) Culminating with the murder of the youngest witch, we flash-forward to present day as the film morphs into a stale domestic soap opera, with Rochon--presumably the descendant of her prologue's character--moping about her crumbling marriage. And though I commend Wingenfeld for an impressive prelude on a DIY budget, the opening fifteen minutes ultimately has no payoff, and a few economically-written lines of dialogue would have conveyed the same amount of information.
What SKIN CRAWL is really about is Rochon's murder (committed at the same spot as the earlier killing--an event that would've had more resonance had Rochon been the one initially slain) by her husband (Kevin G. Shinnick) and his mistress (the alluring, and oft-nude, Julian Wells) so they can enjoy her fortune. It's a plot we've seen many times before, and Wingenfeld covers all the bases, right down to Wells's double-cross. Considering the film's visual acuity and the performances of the leads, it's rather disappointing to see such an unoriginal tale trotted out once again, though editor Bret Piper keeps things engrossing by constantly backtracking to reveal deeper layers of the story from various perspectives (this technique tends to grow wearisome by the third act, however). When Rochon returns from the grave to exact her revenge, it's as predictable as the CREEPY/EERIE comics is so closely emulates. Aided by a few plot contrivances, it's shot perfunctorally, with a minimum of bloodshed, so that it can't help but feel obligatory, almost anti-climactic--though the disgusting, maggot-puking finale makes up for it a little.
Despite the familiarity of the material, SKIN CRAWL manages to maintain interest with a uniformly strong cast and fun, sure-handed direction (that's thankfully free of pretension) that includes an interesting juxtaposition as Rochon dies while her husband boinks his other woman. With his knack for doing a lot without much money, I'd like to see what Wingenfeld can do with a more original script.